FLORENCE, S.C. — Downtown Florence has a new tenant, and this one is as cool and chill as they come.
Chocobella, a new boutique gelato and fine Belgian chocolates shop, is set to open its doors for business on Saturday, which also happens to be Small Business Saturday.
The new venture by Ranny Starnes has been in the works for some time and it all started at Dolce Vita, the coffee and chocolate shop Starnes managed for several years.
“At Dolce, my focus was always the coffee because that’s what my background was in, but the chocolates did intrigue me,” Starnes said. “So I asked if I could learn more about the chocolate and how to make it and the first time I tried it, I was hooked.”
Starnes was so hooked, she found herself researching and experimenting with the process any time she had a free moment at Dolce and even in her off time. She was particularly interested in learning how to play with bright colors and textures to add a little pizazz to the chocolates’ outward appearance.
“I started out just playing around with cocoa butter and the exterior of the chocolate. I went on social media and started following a bunch of chocolatiers all over the world. The more I got into it and talked to more people, I was just amazed by what you can do with colors and different ingredients. I really was just fascinated by the whole process, especially the artistic side of it,” Starnes, who is also a professional artist who works with everything from paint to wood to jewelry in her creations.
Her newfound passion got Starnes thinking about pursuing something different career-wise. She discussed the idea with Dolce Vita owner Dr. John Keith, and he immediately encouraged her to go for it. He even went a step further and offered up some prime real estate space in one of several downtown buildings he owns.
“John has been a constant source of support and encouragement from the very beginning. In fact, when you think about it, John kind of believed in this before even I did,” Starnes said, laughing. “Through the years, I’d always heard people say one thing we were missing in downtown was an ice cream shop or a place to go grab a good dessert after having dinner at one of the restaurants down here, a place families could go together and enjoy. John agreed and he was the one who immediately said, ‘You can do this. You can go out on your own and make this happen.’”
At first, Starnes considered an old-fashioned ice cream shop, but after some consideration, she and others felt gelato — a popular frozen treat of Italian origin considered to be a little more gourmet than ice cream — would pair better with the fine Belgian chocolates.
The plan, at that point, was for Starnes to continue her management duties at Dolce Vita on a part-time basis and she and Marvin James, one of Keith’s partners in Dolce Vita, would work on the new chocolate and gelato business. Then, Covid hit. Like all other dining establishments, Dolce Vita was forced to close its doors and Starnes and her staff there found themselves suddenly unemployed with no idea when things might get back to normal.
“Just like with everyone else, COVID really messed things up,” Starnes said. “I was supposed to go to chocolatier classes and to Gelato University, which sounds funny but is actually a place. And then suddenly, everything shut down and there were no classes. Not to mention, there was nobody coming downtown so there were no customers to serve, even if we had been able to get up and running.”
Starnes bided her time patiently and did what she could to keep things moving, getting the shop ready and even taking online courses in chocolate and gelato. Then, Keith and his partners decided they would not reopen Dolce Vita when restrictions were lifted. So Chocobella became Starnes’ only job and priority.
“That was a little scary,” Starnes said, chuckling. “Because with no Dolce Vita, there was nothing to fall back on. This gelato business had to work. Failure or not following through with it wasn’t an option anymore.”
Now the shop is ready to open, and Starnes is ecstatic that the public finally gets to come in and experience Chocobella. The gelato menu will change seasonally, as Starnes and her crew come up with new flavors and combinations. But for now, the lineup includes dark chocolate, vanilla, coconut, butter pecan, limoncello, cherry cheesecake, pistachio, birthday cake, baked apple pie, salted caramel, strawberry sorbet and a vegan-friendly hazelnut.
“We actually spent a day with a gelato chef at Pre Gel America’s state-of-the-art facility in Charlotte, where we got to come up with recipes and try out different ingredients and pastes. All of these on the menu are our creations,” Starnes said. “Our goal is to have six core flavors and then we’ll rotate six out seasonally or as we come up with new ideas and get more adventurous.”
Gelato is available by the cup — large or small — and a wide array of fine Belgian chocolate creations are also available for purchase, both individually and by the box. There is no dine-in option. All orders are to-go, but those who are social distancing and don’t want to come in the shop can order at the walk-up window on the side.
“We just want to invite everyone to come in and see us,” Starnes said. “This is something new for downtown Florence, and we just hope everyone will get as excited about it as we are.”
Chocobella is at 114 N. Dargan St., Suite A, beside News 13’s downtown office, near the corner of Dargan and Evans. For now, the shop will be open Tuesday – Saturday, from noon to 7 p.m. each day.